Piero Gilardi’s artistic and political trajectories are closely linked to both ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. He was involved in the two exhibitions from the preparatory stages: acting as a consultant, collaborating in their conception through his ideas, and suggesting to the curators several international artists with whom he had previously been in contact. He also wrote essays for both exhibition catalogues – although his text for ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ did not ultimately appear in this context. He considered his advisory role as well as his texts as artistic contributions to the shows.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Gilardi felt that his artistic practice was too limited a platform to reflect the scope of his intellectual concerns. He moved his focus towards politics, and the question of integration between art and life gained urgency in light of the social and artistic revolutions in which he was actively participating. In 1967 he stopped producing artworks and decided to dedicate himself to creating what he called ‘relationships’ with other artists. He travelled, self-funded, through Western Europe and in the US meeting artists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman in New York, William T. Wiley and Louise Bourgeois in San Francisco, Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf, Richard Long in London and Jan Dibbets in Amsterdam. He established a conversational network between them and published reports on the connections he was making. In a manner similar to the then emerging figure of the independent curator, he intended to gather information on new practices and organise them theoretically through his writing for international art magazines. His ambition was to promote self-organisation as a political tool and to extend the implications of the new emerging practices to the field of exhibition making. He conceived this as a necessary stage towards the creation of a new integration of art and political life, coinciding with the political revolt associated with the international student movement of 1968 and with the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Gilardi’s essay in the exhibition catalogue for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, ‘Politics and the Avant-Garde’, ends with a declaration of intent with manifesto undertones:
Between today and the achievement of the ‘global continuum’ of art and life lies a series of ‘economic’ actions that must be undertaken: participation in the revolutionary praxis, demystification of the cultural dialogue, and ‘epidermic contact’ between artists all over the world.01
These words summarise Gilardi’s intense activity between 1967 and 1969. During these two years, he was the most active organiser of an unusual institution in Turin, the Deposito D’Arte Presente (DDP), an exhibition space directed by a community of artists that included, beside Gilardi, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Mario Merz, amongst others. This venture generated a series of exhibitions, theatre plays, music performances and film screenings that involved local and international figures such as members of Arte Povera, the Living Theatre and Pier Paolo Pasolini. The most revolutionary characteristic of the DDP was the way in which works were displayed and allowed to operate: the exhibition space was half way between a studio and a museum, and works could be changed during the exhibition period or even modified by the artists in situ. 02
Gilardi’s passionate activity shaped his contribution to the two exhibitions. He was able to provide both Wim Beeren and Harald Szeemann with first- hand information about young artists, and he suggested a democratic structure for the conception of the shows. Gilardi was interested in securing a central role for the participating artists in what he conceived of as ‘temporary artistic communities’: 03 a political setting in which the artists would decide in full democracy the structure, content and layout of the shows. The following interview, which took place on 8 November 2008, gives an account of the conflict that his position brought about:
Francesco Manacorda: I’d like to explore your role in the two exhibitions ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. Wim Beeren credits you as an inspiration and instigator in the catalogue for the former…
Piero Gilardi: …and yet the conflict with Harald Szeemann was so intense that my contribution was excised from the latter.
FM: Beeren consulted you from the beginning of his preparation of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’. What did you have to offer him?
PG: In 1967 I started moving between the West Coast of the US and Stockholm in order to locate artists that were making strides in a new kind of practice.
FM: Was it a personal project of yours or was it connected to your artistic practice?
PG: It was a personal project that related to my political position. In my artistic experience I clashed with the market logic of the time. In 1967 I created a series of objects that were exhibited at Galleria Sperone in Milan and defined by my entourage and me as Oggetti Poveri [Poor Objects]. These were objects that, as a counterpart to Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Oggetti in Meno [Minus Objects, 1965–66], required space for their innovative expression, their new take on the existential game and their relation to the whole 1960s experience, which was developing with the 1968 political- cultural revolution. I showed them to my dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who rejected this change in my practice and asked me to keep on making my Tappeti-Natura [Nature Carpets, a series started in 1965].
FM: Your Oggeti Poveri were familiar objects with a function in the everyday world, yet they weren’t factory fabricated but made manually with salvaged materials…
PG: Their significance resides in the practice of bricolage. They were objects that were made autonomously, and that, therefore, expressed the individual’s desire to disengage from mass consumption and to rebuild – symbolically with one’s own hands and with one’s own creativity – objects of daily use.
FM: So they were mainly utensils?
PG: There was a comb, a pair of sandals, a saw, a shopping trolley – all made in the naïve manner of bricolage and, as such, reinvented objects. My intention was to affirm a counter-subjectivity, to work against the growing alienation of the individual and the growing compulsion to consume.
FM: How was this political and aesthetic vision connected to the creation of an international artistic network?
PG: In the show, these objects represented a semantic accumulation coupled with artistic creativity. There wasn’t a political consciousness behind them – that came later – but they distilled a new subjectivity that was emerging. These were the years when a fundamental framework was emerging in the US. Robert Smithson and Robert Morris had expressed the sense of total entropy, or dead end, that had been reached by the industrial system. While Morris and Donald Judd insisted on this sense of emptiness, Smithson glimpsed an escape route. He discerned that he needed to abandon the parameters of art history – of aesthetics – to escape the traditional artistic circuit and find a new creative outlet, starting from an individual expression through the use of landscape.
FM: Were your travels dictated by the necessity of activating a dialogue between like-minded people or was there a more complex aesthetic and political objective?
PG: In 1967, after rejecting the production of objects, I suffered because of the limitations that the art system placed on an artist’s creativity. I believed it was no longer possible to change the forms of art or its inherent conditions and so I made the choice – which still wasn’t conscious on a political level – of not making any more commercial objects, and to work only upon ideas with other artists. I therefore began an activity that Tommaso Trini helped me define in terms of ‘relationship’. This activity was hybrid, in the sense that it could be viewed as an artistic gesture, and therefore could be included in a Conceptual art framework as Anti-Form art, but on the other hand it also had its own theoretical structure. Actually, it was in this context that I coined a definition that I used for about two years: ‘Microemotive art’. I was aware that this was a transitory definition, but it was a way of distinguishing all these new experiences as against the mainstream, object-based forms dominant at the time. It established a position that implied rediscovering a new sensibility deep within the individual.
FM: What were the results of your activity in this area?
PG: It started with the artists who invited me: Olle Kåks invited me to Stockholm, Ger van Elk to Amsterdam and the gallerist Nicolas Wilder to Los Angeles. This offered a chance to find artists referred to by other artists. In 1967 I turned this work of ‘relationship’ into a sort of a photographic album, an archive with charts and data about the artists I had met, their work and interventions. A second outcome from my dialogue with artists was the theoretical elaboration that I developed through texts. Of particular importance was the article ‘Primary Energy and the “Microemotive Artists”’ published in Arts Magazine in the autumn of 1968. 04 I would say that I performed the role of an animator within an artistic scene and then that of an organiser from another standpoint. The intention was to catalyse this emergent movement: on the one hand by being involved in exhibition and performance activities, like the Amalfi festival, 05 for example, and, on the other, by gathering ideas and elaborating on them theoretically.
FM: It seems to me that another important element of this movement was the Deposito d’Arte Presente (DDP), the space run by you and other artists in Turin.
PG: Yes, it was a self-organised alternative space.
FM: I’m interested in understanding how much that project influenced Szeemann and Beeren, especially in the innovative way that the works were exhibited in the space, as though they were in transit, literally like the warehouse (deposito) of its title. The exhibition strategy developed for Bern and Amsterdam by the respective curators was based on creating the impression that the galleries were a temporary depository for the works included, rather than a museum-like white cube that is conceived so as to isolate the works outside of historical time. I wonder if the feeling of a laboratory where artistic process is shown as unfinished, which is the impression I imagine both ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ gave, was inspired by the experience of the DDP.
PG: The DDP had this humble name: ‘depository’ – it was a space where works were temporarily set down, with the intention that they would then be recast, or displaced. But the fact of their being assembled together in one place also allowed for them to be discussed all together. The DDP was created with a double function: on the one hand to open an alternative space where there was a new exhibition grammar other than the white cube and, on the other, to allow a meeting between the artists and to facilitate dialogue with the invited guests as well, like the Living Theatre, for example.
FM: How was the idea of the DDP born? Was it your idea?
PG: It involved collector Marcello Levi, who in turn involved other Turin- based collectors. I’d lived for a year in New York, where there were a lot of alternative spaces, to the point that the Lower East Side became a kind of total exhibition. Museum curators tend to give importance to the container for art but our logic back then was this: let’s dematerialise the art and transform it into action. So we were for cancelling everything – it was an intellectual and political phase in which the old rigid structures and all the paradigms of industrial society were called into question
FM: Was it you who convinced the other artists to participate in this adventure?
PG: The Arte Povera artists were already established in Turin, but this group was enlarged with Pier Paolo Calzolari, who lived in Bologna, as well as Emilio Prini and Pino Pascali. I brought Ger van Elk and Jan Dibbets. I never managed to bring Richard Long to Turin but I got him to Amalfi. The Turin group was already quite cohesive because they had all come together in Michelangelo Pistoletto’s studio as early as 1966.
FM: So, you and Pistoletto were the group’s instigators?
PG: Yes. I don’t want to overlook the fact that in 1966 Pistoletto opened up his studio and transformed it into an open forum. There you’d find works- in-progress, like the famous Oggetti in Meno. Pistoletto turned his space into a place for interaction between artists, so that the studio became a foyer and also the prelude to the DDP. Michelangelo and I assumed the organisational role, while the other protagonists came later.
FM: When did you first meet Beeren and what kind of rapport did you have with him?
PG: I met Beeren for the first time in December 1967, and I showed him the material on artists that I had gathered in my file of ‘Microemotive art’. We had a great rapport, very serious. He always kept his word. I went to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to bring him some photographs and texts and to discuss them with him.
FM: It is clear from Beeren’s catalogue essay that you were crucial to the development of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’; would you say your contributions to this show and to Szeemann’s show at the Kunsthalle Bern were comparable?
PG: Yes, but I didn’t want to appear like the curator of either show. I enjoyed writing for the catalogues, because this allowed me to discuss the events that I’d put into motion. But Szeemann had started his double-dealing – crucially concerning the show’s concept. I had agreed with him that the exhibition would be put together with pieces that were made on-site, that all the artists on the list would be invited to live for a week in Bern and to found a temporary artistic community. The idea was to decide collectively what spaces would be assigned to which participants and how to use them, how to subdivide the kunsthalle and the places outside of it. Szeemann started to depart from the idea because he wanted to involve Leo Castelli. A dealer running a commercial gallery in New York, Castelli was also connected to the political establishment of the US and he received government support for a sort of cultural propaganda intended to promote national art and interests internationally. The involvement of Castelli, therefore, was really an alignment with a major institutional power. At this point I suggested to Harald that we shouldn’t accept this alliance because Castelli was so strong that he would distort the show.
FM: His intervention was financial?
PG: No, it was through his artists. Castelli controlled access to one of the key artists: Bruce Nauman. Therefore he set as a condition that if Nauman was to be included in the exhibition then the other artists who worked with him would also have to be invited. In this disagreement between Harald and me, he said he had to take this decision because he wanted Philip Morris as the exhibition’s sponsor. This makes absolute sense because Philip Morris was in a very tight relationship with the political system governing the US, as Castelli was. My position was to ask Harald to rather take an untainted stance, to maintain the clarity of the idea and his innovative approach. At the least, he would have had to stay faithful to the project’s concept of inviting artists to produce work in Bern, but he refused categorically. Some artists, such as van Elk and Long, didn’t want to send works that were already made. But it was clear that there was a manoeuvre underway, on the part of the international art system, to assume control of this new movement that I, conversely, deemed to be connected fundamentally to an autonomy of exhibition activity on the part of the artists involved. So I said, ‘If you’re going to be that rigid, I’m withdrawing my text’. I also decided to remove my name from the curatorial authorship of ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, to return the payment I had received for it and to reimburse the related expenses for the trips that I had done, for the photographs and the charts. I was sorry because Wim was much more honest and really put on a show that was open and fluid. Certainly, even in ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, there were artists who were already controlled by the market, but all in all the Stedelijk show was much more open than ‘When Attitudes Become Form’.
FM: Still, the artists who had installed their work in Amsterdam then moved on to do the same in Bern. An innovative aspect of both exhibitions was precisely their highlighting that at least some of the works shown were activities that weren’t necessarily finished but in-progress. The creative process – understood as ‘attitude’ or ‘situation’ – included the interaction of artists with the exhibition space, which meant it was vital that participating artists were there for the installation.
PG: The importance of making the works on site was connected to locating artistic experience within shared social life, and this was the core of a new museology. Today museums have understood that they need to establish a deep relationship with the visitor.
FM: What happened to the text that you prepared for the catalogue that accompanied ‘When Attitudes Become Form’?
PG: I withdrew it and Szeemann was happy not to publish it. When he took up this inflexible position I told him that some other artists and I would come and protest with placards outside the kunsthalle during the opening. I tried to involve other artists in this action, but they didn’t go along with it – they were weak and didn’t have much political awareness. However, we did perform another kind of protest like this in Turin for the first big Arte Povera show at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna (GAM), titled ‘Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art’, which Germano Celant curated in 1970. We hung a banner across the balcony of the GAM and we sat in a circle on the floor in a room, where we read excerpts from Mao about culture. It was a small gesture of cultural revolution. In Bern I didn’t succeed because the other artists were politically too timid, they were too concentrated on their work, but what they didn’t understand is that the moment you want to put your own creative experience into the social sphere you can’t help but run into conflict, and it’s necessary to operate within the conflict.
FM: Does the text that you prepared for ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ still exist in your personal archives or was it lost?
PG: I don’t have it anymore but it was very similar to the text published in the catalogue for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’.
FM: Is there a direct relationship between the concept of Maoist cultural revolution and your idea of the temporary artistic community necessary for the formation of a cultural event? One of the central aspects of the included artworks and of the impact of the two shows on art history partially corresponds to the idea of revolution as a permanent state. According to such a view, the artistic process doesn’t finish in the studio but is positioned as a process of change in some shape or form, a continual transformation that never ends.
PG: Yes, but the concept was still embryonic; the point of arrival was always form. Szeemann’s vision was not that of cancelling out the object – of transforming nature – but the condensation of ideology into an aesthetic icon, and he was still interested in showing the whole supporting process of the artwork’s creation and its maintenance. That’s because he, as a museum man, needed a final object. In the field of contemporary art today, finally, the artwork has assumed a much more radical, threshold value, which is rooted in its interaction with its social and natural setting.
FM: The Amalfi festival came before the two shows. Was the situation different, or was it facing a similar set of issues as ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and ‘Op Losse Schroeven’?
PG: Yes, it came earlier, and was initiated by Marcello Rumma. Szeemann and Beeren’s two shows in 1969 and the Amalfi festival of 1968 came after the debate amongst the artists, who wanted the institutions to respond to this emerging movement. With Marcello Rumma, I took the same stance that I brought to my relationships with Szeemann and Beeren. My proposal was to put social life, and therefore the work’s symbolic interaction in its social context, in a dominant position. There was certainly an exhibition component, with the works on show in the Antichi Arsenali della Repubblica in Amalfi, but for a week the artists were free to roam around the town, create installations and get into a rapport with the inhabitants. Pistoletto put on a play there with Amalfi citizens; [Richard] Long installed a wooden cross at the summit of the mountain that overlooks the town; Mario Merz hid a neon light on the beach, where Marisa Merz abandoned her crocheted socks.
FM: So, was this a successful result for your idea of a temporary community, in that the artists were invited to operate in dialogue with the social situation in which their work was exhibited, with many asked to create works on site?
PG: For a week we were collaborating with our surroundings. Not everybody accepted the offer – some, like Giovanni Anselmo and Gilberto Zorio, preferred to send a work that had already been made – some actually took pieces out of the DDP. But they still came to Amalfi and participated in the debate and in the dialogue with the other artists. There was a real collision over what the festival represented in terms of the alternatives for Arte Povera. On the one hand there was Celant, with whom Gillo Dorfles and a young Achille Bonito Oliva were associated, who turned against the Amalfi model; and on the other there were Filiberto Menna, Tommaso Trini, Angelo Trimarco and those of us who subscribed to it. While we supported a new method of artistic operation that involved a new dimension, namely the free circulation of ideas and dynamic multiple interaction, the other group supported the capitalisation of aesthetic value. Before the gathering at Amalfi, Arte Povera didn’t exist as an institutionalised artistic practice.
FM: Was your model inspired by a theatrical model, such as Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ in Brazil, given the importance of the event’s insertion into the political and social fabric and this becoming the crux of the work?
PG: Of course, in fact even the very name ‘Arte Povera’ or ‘Poor Art’ was borrowed by Celant from Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ – it doesn’t derive from the nature of the materials used.
FM: The tension between artistic practice and political engagement has continued to increase since these events; what direction has your own cultural activity taken in relations to your political vision?
PG: In 1967–68 my artistic activity amounted to a self-organising cooperative effort towards exhibitions on the part of the artists, and I realised, around the middle of 1968, that this model was something similar to a guild. The idea of cooperation was valid in the initial phase, when we had to break the pyramidal hierarchy of professional artists, critics and curators. Once we had passed that phase, such work became a risk and we were alienated from its inherent possibility, which stems from its direct connection with society’s entire transformative process – that is to say, with the revolutionary process. I perceived the risk that we might create an artists’ guild that functioned well on its own, inasmuch as it was horizontally organised, but that, with regards to society, presented itself as a closed body. My position, therefore, changed: creative activity had to be contemporary and synergetic with political or social activity. So, I began to work in the anti-psychiatry movement.
FM: Did you abandon artistic activity for a time then?
PG: Yes. I’d already suspended the creation of objects. I was writing and I continued to write for various magazines up to 1969, trying to spread my message. At the end of 1969 my artistic activity in the arena of anti- psychiatry consisted of theatrical actions and I was working in an asylum to create a therapeutic community. That’s also where I founded the atelier for free expression and from where we produced theatre inspired by Augusto Boal. For example, one of our actions was compulsory hospitalisation: we simulated the forced admission of a mentally ill patient; pouncing on someone in a park, for instance, we would put them in a straight-jacket and take them away in a white station wagon with a red cross on it. Right afterwards, our colleagues would arrive with leaflets explaining how an asylum was structurally similar and complementary to a Taylorist factory. This is how my work entered a phase connected to collective creativity and up until 1984 I didn’t get involved in any individual artistic production. Since collective creativity has no authorship, it was never recognised by the art system, which is why the myth spread that Gilardi ended up as a stretcher-bearer at the Turin lunatic asylum!
Translated by Amanda Coulson
Piero Gilardi, ‘Politics and the Avant-Garde’, Op Losse Schroeven (exh. cat.), Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1969, n.p.
For a full account of the history of the DDP see Robert Lumley, ‘Arte Povera in Turin: The Intriguing Case of the Deposito D’Arte Presente’, in Robert Lumley and Francesco Manacorda (ed.), Marcello Levi: Portrait of a Collector. From Futurism to Arte Povera, Turin: Hopefulmonster, 2005, pp.89–107.
This is the turn of phrase that Gilardi uses in the following interview.
Piero Gilardi, ‘Primary Energy and the “Microemotive Artists”’, Arts Magazine, vol.43, no.1, September/October 1968, pp.48–52.
‘Arte Povera + Azioni Povere’, Amalfi, 4–6 October 1968.